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Central Asia: Summits Link Security, Economics

Two summit meetings in Central Asia last week showed signs of the growing links between security and economic interests in the region. But Uzbekistan's sharp split from the initiatives may also be a sign that not all regional interests will be served. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 17 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Recent events in the Caspian region and Central Asia suggest that tensions over economic and energy issues may be rising along with heightened security fears.

Over the past month, the questions of economics and security have seemed inseparable as Russia has joined its neighbors in a series of agreements and deals.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a five-nation pact in Astana, Kazakhstan, to create a Eurasian Economic Community. One day later in Bishkek, Putin took part in a six-nation summit to spur activities under a 1992 Collective Security Treaty over the next five years. The two economic and security structures and their goals seemed closely intertwined.

Before the start of the economic meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Russia, Tair Mansurov, said, "Today we will discuss not only economic but also political problems, strengthen military cooperation and move closer in the social and humanitarian spheres."

All five countries of the new Eurasian Economic Community -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus -- are members of the security arrangement, which also has Armenia in its ranks.

As a leading advocate of the economic group, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev made clear that he wants it to be more effective than the loosely-knit Customs Union to which the members have previously belonged since 1996. Nazarbaev said the countries are now expected to strengthen their external borders, adding, "If a state cannot fulfil this task, its membership in the Customs Union will be suspended."

The mixing of trade and security functions was echoed by Putin's statements in both Astana and Bishkek on the threat posed by Afghanistan's Taliban, as well as separate bilateral agreements between Kazakhstan and Russia.

In Astana, the two sides negotiated a deal to give Russia's EES electricity network a half-share in a Kazakhstan power plant to settle a $300-million debt. Putin and Nazarbaev also signed a declaration on a common position for dividing the Caspian. Putin, who is expected to take the plan to other Caspian shoreline states, called Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on Friday to arrange a summit. Putin also used the occasion of the Astana meeting to grant Kazakhstan a higher quota to export oil through Russian pipelines, a move that could lower the flow through U.S.-backed routes.

Putin's dual mission and the flurry of activity has already met with some strong reactions among nations outside the economic and security structures.

A Taliban spokesman said Russia's actions were aimed at spreading fear and its own economic interests in the region, adding that Russia's military presence "is not only a potential threat to Afghanistan but also for all Central Asian countries."

In recent weeks, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has also dramatically changed his position on the dangers posed by the Taliban, rejecting Russia's stance on both new structures in defiant statements.

Karimov said last week that the Eurasian Economic Community had been built on "illusory foundations." And after charging last month that reports of Islamic terrorism were intended to increase Russian influence, Karimov insisted last week that the Taliban "do not represent a threat to Uzbekistan."

Karimov's motives, like Putin's, seem driven both by security and economics. The Taliban's recent military successes have convinced Karimov that their victory is inevitable. But his new policy was announced only after a meeting with Niyazov in Ashgabat last month. Niyazov, who enjoys good relations with the Taliban, has never given up hope for a project that would pipe Turkmen gas across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.

That same project, previously backed by the U.S. oil company Unocal, also sought to pipe Central Asian oil through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Russia's growing closeness to Kazakhstan and its energy sector may leave Uzbekistan with fewer export prospects, particularly if Russian pipelines become filled with Kazakh oil and gas.

Last week, Karimov also softened his position on selling gas to Ukraine despite its debts, telling President Leonid Kuchma that he would never impose "impossible conditions." The move may have been aimed at pressuring Putin to ease his stand on Russia's own debt claims and gas supplies to Kyiv.

The polarization could renew Uzbekistan's participation in the GUUAM grouping of countries, which also links Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. While it has struggled to define its purpose, GUUAM is seen as pursuing a possible security role for the U.S.-backed oil pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, which Moscow opposes.

While most of the GUUAM countries have mixed interests and must maintain ties to Russia, Uzbekistan appears increasingly angered by the recent maneuvers on security and economics. It may be months before the extent of the regional split becomes clear.